Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is bargain priced in ebook for $1.99 today only on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. This was the only novel besides Jane Austen that I was assigned to read in high school not written by a white male. Yes, I was just on the leading edge of the curriculum revolution that has occurred over the last 25 years. (Don't worry, I read PLENTY of other stuff on my own.) Hurston is actually more important to me personally as a folklorist--see Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States--but this is an important book in American literature now.
At the height of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston was the preeminent black woman writer in the United States. She was a sometime-collaborator with Langston Hughes and a fierce rival of Richard Wright. Her stories appeared in major magazines, she consulted on Hollywood screenplays, and she penned four novels, an autobiography, countless essays, and two books on black mythology. Yet by the late 1950s, Hurston was living in obscurity, working as a maid in a Florida hotel. She died in 1960 in a Welfare home, was buried in an unmarked grave, and quickly faded from literary consciousness until 1975 when Alice Walker almost single-handedly revived interest in her work.
Of Hurston's fiction, Their Eyes Were Watching God is arguably the best-known and perhaps the most controversial. The novel follows the fortunes of Janie Crawford, a woman living in the black town of Eaton, Florida. Hurston sets up her characters and her locale in the first chapter, which, along with the last, acts as a framing device for the story of Janie's life. Unlike Wright and Ralph Ellison, Hurston does not write explicitly about black people in the context of a white world--a fact that earned her scathing criticism from the social realists--but she doesn't ignore the impact of black-white relations either:
It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.One person the citizens of Eaton are inclined to judge is Janie Crawford, who has married three men and been tried for the murder of one of them. Janie feels no compulsion to justify herself to the town, but she does explain herself to her friend, Phoeby, with the implicit understanding that Phoeby can "tell 'em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat's just de same as me 'cause mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf."
Hurston's use of dialect enraged other African American writers such as Wright, who accused her of pandering to white readers by giving them the black stereotypes they expected. Decades later, however, outrage has been replaced by admiration for her depictions of black life, and especially the lives of black women. In Their Eyes Were Watching God Zora Neale Hurston breathes humanity into both her men and women, and allows them to speak in their own voices. --Alix Wilber
And while we are here, Chocolat by Joanne Harris is also bargain priced at $2.99 for ebook today only. I've met fans of it over the years among the SurLaLune audience, so thought I'd share it, too.
Vivianne Rocher moves to the tiny French town of Lansquenet to open a chocolate boutique, and, suddenly, strange things start to happen. The townspeople begin to eschew the self-righteous gossip of small-town life, and they find the courage to break the rigid codes of provincial behavior. In short, they start enjoying life--all because of the sensual power of chocolate. But the hidebound local priest does not approve of Vivianne, and soon, a power struggle shapes up between the two of them.